Lady with an Ermine is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, from around 1489–1490. The subject of the portrait is identified as Cecilia Gallerani, and was probably painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the service of the Duke.
The painting is one of only four female portraits painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci and La belle ferronnière. It is currently displayed in the Wawel Castle, Kraków, Poland. When exhibited in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it was described as “signal[ling] a breakthrough in the art of psychological portraiture”.
Subject and Symbolism
The small portrait generally called The Lady with the Ermine was painted in oils on wooden panel by Leonardo da Vinci. At the time of its painting, the medium of oil paint was relatively new to Italy, having been introduced in the 1470s. Leonardo was one of the artists who adopted the new medium and skillfully exploited its qualities. The sitter has been identified with reasonable security as Cecilia Gallerani, who was the mistress of Leonardo’s employer, Ludovico Sforza, known asIl Moro (Which means The Moor).
At the time of her portrait, Cecilia was about sixteen. She was one of a large family, neither rich nor noble. Her father served for a time at the Duke’s court. Cecilia was renowned for her beauty, her scholarship, and her poetry. She was betrothed at the age of about ten years to a young nobleman of the house of Visconti, but the marriage was called off. Cecilia became the mistress of the Duke and bore him a son, but he chose to marry a girl from a nobler family, Beatrice d’Este.
The painting shows a half-length figure, the body of the young woman turned at a three-quarter angle towards her right, but her face turned towards her left. Her gaze is directed neither straight ahead, nor towards the viewer, but towards a “third party” beyond the picture’s frame. In her arms, Cecilia holds a small white-coated stoat, known as an ermine. Cecilia’s dress is comparatively simple, revealing she is not a noblewoman. Her coiffure, known as a coazone, confines her hair smoothly to her head with two bands of hair bound on either side of her face and a long plait at the back. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads, a black band, and a sheath over the plait.
There are several interpretations of the significance of the ermine in her portrait. The ermine, a stoat in its winter coat, was a traditional symbol of purity because it was believed an ermine would face death rather than soil its white coat: Leonardo amused himself by compiling a bestiary in his old age; in it he recorded
MODERATION The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity;
he repeats in another note, “Moderation curbs all the vices. The ermine prefers to die rather than soil itself.” Ermines were kept as pets by the aristocracy and their white pelts were used to line or trim aristocratic garments. For Ludovico il Moro, the ermine had a further personal significance in that he had been in the Order of the Ermine in 1488 and used it as a personal emblem. The association of the ermine with Cecilia could have been intended to refer both to her purity and to the status of her lover. Alternatively, the ermine could be a pun on her name because the Greek for ermine is galay. This would be in keeping with Leonardo’s placement of a juniper bush behind the figure in his portrait of Ginevra de Benci in reference to her name. Given that Gallerani gave birth to a son acknowledged by Lodovico in May 1491, and the association of weasels and pregnancy in Italian Renaissance culture, it is also possible the animal was a symbol of Cecilia’s pregnancy. In addition, it has been speculated that the animal in the painting appears to be not an ermine, but a white ferret, a colour favoured in the Middle Ages because of the ease of seeing the white animal in thick undergrowth.
As in many of Leonardo’s paintings, the composition comprises a pyramidic spiral and the sitter is caught in the motion of turning to her left, reflecting Leonardo’s lifelong preoccupation with the dynamics of movement. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of his many innovations. Il Moro’s court poet, Bernardo Bellincioni, was the first to propose that Cecilia is poised as if listening to an unseen speaker.
This work in particular shows Leonardo’s expertise in painting the human form. The outstretched hand of Cecilia was painted with great detail. Leonardo paints every contour of each fingernail, each wrinkle around her knuckles, and even the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found on this artwork:
First Published: Nov 6, 2012